Iraq’s Children Abandoned on World Health Day

May 7th, 2003 - by admin

by By Aisha El-Awady – Islam Online

April 7 of each year marks the date on which the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates World Health Day. This year’s theme, “Healthy Environments for Children”, highlights the fact that each year more than 5 million children aged 0-14 die from diseases and other conditions caused by the environments in which they live, learn and play (WHO). In light of this, the first Gulf War, the subsequent sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iraq for the past 11 years and the ongoing war on Iraq has and will have a devastating effect on the children of Iraq.

The situation in Iraq has been shocking for a long time before this current war. The Iraqi’s have been living in inhumane conditions for more than 10 years. This current war, ironically labeled by the Anglo/American forces as “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, will lead to a humanitarian crisis that will have grave consequences for the Iraqi children that form half the population, as 50% of all Iraqi’s are under the age of 17, and 4 million children under the age of five.

These children are at risk of being killed, physically injured, exposed to psychological problems, disabilities, disease, displacement, separation from family and loss of social services such as schooling and health care during this war.

Children Killed and Maimed
The most immediate risk to the Iraqi children is that of being killed by the coalition bombings or of being shot; according to news reports by ABC News, the bombing of the Iraqi Red Crescent maternity hospital in Baghdad and other civilian buildings have killed several children and wounded many others.

U.N. officials in Amman said that 300 wounded civilians (most of whom were women and children) had flooded a hospital in Hillah in just one day. Two days later, seven to ten women and children were killed in a van at a highway checkpoint by a barrage of U.S. cannon fire (San Francisco Chronicle).

Deadly Water
One of the greatest concerns for the well being of Iraqi children is the water situation. Before the current invasion by Anglo/American forces on Iraq, the sanctions imposed on the country, the bombings of water treatment centers, the destruction of sewage treatment plants, as well as the inability to manufacture electric power essential for sewage and water systems, all of which occurred during the first Gulf War, led to an increase of water-borne illnesses of epidemic proportions among Iraqi children. Over the past year, drinking unpotable water has been the number one killer of children in Iraq, and now more than 100,000 children under the age of five are at high risk of contracting water-borne illnesses according to UNICEF.

Disruptions in electrical power supplies caused by the war has led to the frequent shutdown of pumping stations thus forcing people to find water wherever they can, including puddles in the streets. The shortage of clean potable water in major cities such as Basra and Baghdad make children at risk of being subject to major epidemics including cholera, typhoid and black water fever, an extremely deadly disease in children under five. The World Health Organization has confirmed cases of black water fever and typhoid in the southern city of Basra, which has been without water for more than a week.

“Without massive help in bringing in water, medical and food supplies, many children and pregnant women will not survive this conflict,” said UNICEF Iraq operations head Carel de Rooy (Agence France Presse).

The situation is becoming more urgent as temperatures rise to the high 30s (Celsius) in southern Iraq. Distribution of potable water in combat zones is extremely limited and when it does get through it usually goes to the strongest leaving the most vulnerable, including children, at a loss. The war has also caused additional contamination of rivers and canals by raw sewage.

Health Crisis
Malnourishment and disease have had a permanent place in the lives of Iraqi children since the imposition of the UN sanctions. At least 500,000 children have died as a direct result of the UN sanctions. According to the UN, one fourth of Iraqi children under the age of five are malnourished and the situation may turn into a catastrophe under the current conditions of war. Many children will not survive if massive water, food and medical supplies are not delivered.

Hospitals lacking in all medical supplies and equipment serve only as places for diseased children to die. Doctors are underpaid, exhausted and working under outrageous conditions. The chief of the Russian Committee of the Red Cross said it was too dangerous for doctors to work in Iraq, which means the children would have to be evacuated to neighbouring countries like Iran and Jordan. The lack of medicine in Iraqi hospitals has also made it essential for the Iraqi children to be moved.

The oil fires and oil-filled trenches that have been burning in Iraq, together with the bomb-ignited fires in Baghdad and other cities, are generating vast amounts of toxic smoke. Children and people with respiratory problems are at an immediate risk of harm by contaminants such as sulfur, mercury, dioxins and furans. Dangerous pollutants are likely to be released due to bombings of industrial facilities in Baghdad by the coalition forces.

Cancer and Birth Defects
The use of Depleted Uranium (DU), which is basically nuclear waste, by the U.S in its shells in the first Gulf War has been linked to a fourfold increase in childhood leukaemia in Iraq. Cancers have shown between a 7- to 10-fold increase, while deformities have increased between 4- and 6-fold since 1990. After the war, Iraq was not permitted to import the clean-up equipment it desperately needed to decontaminate the country of the DU ammunition that was used by the U.S against them. It is estimated that 315 tons of DU dust was left in Iraq due to the use of such ammunition. By comparing the location of cancer cases to air raids across Iraq, from Basra and Kerbala to Baghdad, the relation between DU and cancer is obvious. In southern Iraq, which witnessed the greatest concentration of fired DU, the rising numbers of cases is overwhelming.

The use of DU ammunition by the U.S in this war will assure even more cases of cancer and birth defects. DU dust gets into the water and soil and can be ingested or inhaled. Children are especially at risk and many of them tend to play with pieces of shrapnel left behind after air raids.

Psychological Effect of the War
Besides the damage to infrastructure, the war has also caused psychological damage to the Iraqi children. UNICEF has warned that as many as 500,000 children may be in need of psychological help as a result of trauma suffered during the war.

According to Geoffrey Keele, the UNICEF spokesperson in Iraq, many cases of childhood psychological trauma have emerged. This has been seen in children living through major aerial bombardments. They show terror fits, nightmares, continuous crying, and jumping at sudden noises (ABC).

Mental disorders seen in Iraqi children include anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders. Children who survive the current war and who have already gone through years of difficult and sometime dire circumstances are likely to sustain lasting psychological problems and may even be scarred for life.

On a day when the world is deliberating more healthy environments for our children, it seems that the world community can currently do nothing more than pray for the well-being of the Iraqi children at a time when power and might force their will on the weak and defenseless regardless of world opinion.

ABC News, 2003: US bombs hit Iraqi hospital: witnesses.
Agence France Presse, 2003: Time Running Out for Iraqi Children: UNICEF. Arab News.
Lecumberri, Beatriz, 2003: As war rages, fears for a new generation of Iraqi children. Agence France-Presse
BBC News, 2000: Child death rate doubles in Iraq.
BBC News, 2002: Iraq’s children suffer as war looms.
2003: UN Special Representative Calls For Protection Of Iraqi Children During Conflict.
Reese, Charley, 1999: Iraqi children. The Orlando Sentinel
Fisk, Robert, 2001: Iraqi Children Dying Of US And British DU Ten Years After Gulf War. Independent.
Cusack, Agnes, 2003: Iraqi children at risk from disease and trauma. ABC.
Lowy Joan, 2003: Pollutants, health risks rise in Iraq region U.N. assesses satellite images. Seattlepi.
Reliefweb, 2003: UNICEF ‘deeply troubled’ over deteriorating conditions for Iraqi children.
An Interview With Denis J. Halliday
Stojanovic, Dusan, 2002: UN Sanctions Hurting Iraq Children. Global policy.
Sengupta, Kim, 2003: Allied bombs threaten a new generation of children with trauma, disease and death
Hanley, Charles J., 2003: Civilian toll, war’s underside, mounts as U.S. forces approach Baghdad. SFGate.

Aisha El-Awady is an staff-writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Cairo University and is currently working as instructor of Parasitology in the Faculty of Medicine. She may be contacted at